Every January marks yet another year that we tell ourselves that it’s time to reset, refocus, and re-envision our lives the way they were “meant” to be—the way they “should” be. It’s time to get healthier, work harder (or slower), and match real life with the ideals that have thus far seemed out of reach. But does telling yourself that you “should” do something maintain your sense of motivation long-term? Or do you tend to burn out after a few weeks (or days) of good intentions?

Let’s test this out.

Try telling yourself: “I should finally __________.” (No really, say it to yourself.)Then, sit with the feeling that comes from that SHOULD-thought for just a moment. What comes up for you?

For many, there is a sinking feeling of guilt, embarrassment, or shame that immediately follows (in varying intensities). Did that happen for you? Did the residual feeling leave you feeling more depressed than driven? What if it’s possible that the SHOULD-thoughts you’ve relied on are more shaming than motivating?

Let's envision SHOULD-thoughts like an drill-sergeant that stands behind you, beating down your psyche with each seemingly benign, yet potentially quite defeating thought. The inner drill-sergeant offers (typically well-meaning) threats and ultimatums. i.e. “You’d better lose weight or you’re going to get diabetes.” “You’ll be disappointed if you don’t get straight A’s this year.” For some people, this can be an incredibly depressing inner dialogue.

What if there is a better way to self-motivate?

“THE ENCOURAGER”: What if, instead of an inner drill-sergeant, you had an inner Encourager that responded to your goals (and difficulties attaining them) with patience, kindness, and hopefulness? For many with deeply ingrained SHOULD-messages, this new thinking will not come naturally or easily. It involves radically accepting yourself as a work in progress, and honoring some of the very good reasons you have not obtained goals in the past.

FIND YOUR TRUE MOTIVATION: Ask yourself, “What actually motivates me?” Is there a good feeling you’re hoping to recapture? An external prize? Challenge yourself to do a self-searching, fearless inventory of your inner motivations. Are there secondary gains to accomplishing your goal, like something that you want to prove to yourself or someone else? Knowing your true motivation may assist you in re-writing your goal in a way that reflects the heart of your dream.

AVOID THE “DEAD MAN’S GOAL”: If the goal you’ve set is something a dead man can do (i.e. quit smoking, lose weight, stop cursing, etc.), you are already setting yourself up for failure. Instead, frame your goals positively. For example: Identify at least 5 alternative coping strategies for my nightly cravings to binge eat. Doesn’t that already feel more doable?

Author's Bio: 

Ericka Martin is a therapist and clinical supervisor in Vancouver, Washington. She has spent the last decade helping teens and adults move toward growth and healing. Before starting Star Meadow Counseling, she provided counseling services at university, shelter, and community mental health settings. Read more about Ericka at www.starmeadowcounseling.com .